What a fun clown! (source: It teaser trailer)

I Saw the Fun Clown Movie

I saw the fun clown movie that everyone’s been giggling about. Andrés Muschietti’s It came out recently, giving a refreshing portrayal of clowns, arguably to most marginalized group of circus performers in 2017. (Media portrayals aren’t helping.)

While this movie had it’s fair share of chuckles (and even a few knee-slappers), not all those goofs came from good writing and special effects. Muschietti told the story through the point of view of a group of mean children determined to ruin this fun clown’s summer. It’s interesting to tell a story from the perspective of the antagonist(s), but it worked thanks in large part to the language of cinematography. (Cinematography by the talented Chung-hoon Chung.)

The Camera Speaks

That’s a fancy way of saying the perspective, placement, and movements of the camera inform the audience of what’s going on. Sure, it can let us know where we are, like in some cool sewers, but there’s a lot more going on in any given shot. The placement of characters, the focus of the shot, contrast in color/light — all these elements (and many more) speak to the audience in subtle (and sometimes not-so-subtle) ways.

Perhaps you can’t express that in your own words, and maybe it doesn’t make sense when you read it… but, if you’ve grown up watching film/television/video, you understand this language. In the case of It, the camera tells a story of power — the power differential between children and clowns.

(Lessons From the Screenplay has a great video on this concept.)

Power In Perspective

The point-of-view (POV) shot is not a new concept. Want to show the audience what the protagonist is seeing? Just put the camera where their head would be, and point at the thing.

In this case, the most impactful moments of the film, the most fun and cheerful ones, are told from the perspective of the children. Many of the encounters with the fun clown are shot directly from their point of view. This clown is particularly tall, and children are generally quite small, especially in the 1980s. So we get a lot of camera angles point upwards — what’s the big deal?

If this were a horror movie, that little tilt in the camera would inspire fear. Imagine for a second that the clown was very scary (I know, hard to believe but stick with me). Would a shot where we see both it and the child in full view be as scary? Probably not. What if it was shot from an adult’s perspective, so we’re more-or-less at eye-level with it? That’s a little scarier, but I could punch a clown if I had to.

So, in this case, camera angles and character placement (the fancy term is blocking) tell us about the power dynamic between the characters. That may seem obvious, but it doesn’t have to be clever to be effective. Essentially, there’s power in perspective (note to self: make that the section title) (second note to self: remove notes to self).

Power in It

(note to self: the “Power in ___” titling scheme isn’t always that clever)

Let’s go back to It, which has a pack of unsupervised children who have nothing better to do with their summers than to hunt a fun clown. Normally, the upward angles show our powdered protagonist in a position of power, yet, the nasty bullies nearly always prevail. One time they stabbed him in the head. These kids are messed up.

In this case, time after time Muschietti subverts the power dynamic — that slight tilt of the camera can tell a story of dominance or triumph, but the content can switch in an instant. Perhaps with a quick cut, or a swift smash to the head with a lead pipe. That poor clown never saw it coming.

A bunch of bullies (source: IMDB)

Okay, what’s the Point?

Even in a movie about a fun clown trying to have a great summer in the sewers, every shot is made to make you feel a certain way. Every part of the film points to its message, and the camera is the most powerful tool at a filmmaker’s disposal. Even something as simple as a slight tilt can make all the difference for the audience.

Next time you watch a film (I suggest one you’ve seen before), take note of what the camera is doing. Instead of remembering your favorite lines, try to pick out your favorite shots.

In fact, there’s another great Stephen King adaptation about a bunch of silly ghosts having a kooky party in a hotel. Fun for the whole family!